A record donation of produce to more than 80 food pantries and other sites around the state is coming from an unlikely source: the Missouri Department of Corrections.
For the third year in a row, prisoners in the Department's Restorative Justice Garden Program have harvested and donated a record haul of fresh fruits and vegetables to pantries, churches, nursing homes and school districts throughout Missouri. This year, the offender-grown produce weighed in at 178 tons, topping last year's donation of 163 tons.
The program, which does not use taxpayer money, operates at 19 of 20 adult institutions and three community supervision centers through the Division of Probation and Parole in Missouri. Offenders usually begin planting in institution gardens in April, harvesting the produce starting in July and ending in late fall. Seeds and plants for the gardens are donated by the receiving organizations. The program also provides pantries with thousands of whole plants as well.
This year, the Jefferson City Correctional Center was the top producer, followed by the Boonville Correctional Center and the Western Missouri Correctional Center.
Department director George Lombardi said while the program is not a panacea for reducing crime, it exposes prisoners to the idea of restorative justice and giving them a chance to make up for their crimes.
"One of the reasons I'm interested in doing it is to give offenders an opportunity to give back in some small measure for the transgressions they’ve done against the community and individuals," he said.
And that opportunity often has a profound effect on participating offenders.
"They find that newfound reason to feel decent about themselves, which is really important, getting self-esteem also enhances their ability to both act appropriately while in prison and hopefully deter them from committing crime when they get out," Lombardi said.
But the impact doesn't go just one way; Lombardi said many of the pantries and other organizations have come to rely on the program to obtain fresh produce. In a press release, Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri's Tom Pridemore said the Jefferson City Correctional Center had been a "strong and constant supporter."
"Significant donations like the large amount of fresh produce from JCCC help in a big way," he said in the statement. "We are extremely thankful for the generosity that JCCC continues to demonstrate in the fight against hunger."
Lombardi said he hopes to expose inmates to the gratitude recipient organizations feel for the program, by requiring them to write to offenders. That way, he can help "inculcate" certain qualities like compassion in offenders that can carry with them when they are released.
"They write back and let the inmate population know what that donation and what their hard work meant to those in need because I believe that is really important for them to reinforce that behavior," he said. "It's an opportunity for them to learn compassion and the manifestation of compassion, which is altruism, giving to others."
Lombardi said the garden program is just one part of the Department's restorative justice offerings that "help people in need," including blanket-making and "puppies for parole" programs.